The Mercury (Pottstown, PA)
OJR grad Buckley courts music career
Former OJR standout Brant Buckley turns injury-derailed tennis coaching career into musical pursuit with Nerve Damage Blues
From tennis court to music studio.
From tennis racquet to guitar. That’s the course Brant Buckley’s life has followed. A highschool tennis star who went on to earn pro certification through the United States Professional Tennis Association, the Owen J. Roberts alumnus found his pursuit of that skill curtailed by injury. But the setback provided him the inspiration, and the fuel, to advance his current career as a musician.
“It’s been an interesting seven years,” Buckley said. The prelude to it all was Brant developing his tennis skills from age 5-6, when he picked up the sport while residing in Costa Rica.
He later moved to the Chicago area where he moved on to some junior tournament play before his family relocated to the Chester Springs area around his sophomore year of high school. There Buckley established himself as a premier player for Owen J. and in both the Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1.
He was the PAC’s singles champion in 2005 and a two-time District 1 doubles champion, teaming up with Ben Fleming. His senior season, Brant was selected as The
Mercury All-Area Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
His high-school tennis coach, Jerry Styer, related how impressed he was with the athletic prowess of a player he described as having a “good heart” and being “compassionate about people.”
“He’s a better tennis player than I am,” Styer said of Brant. “I think I was good for him, and he was good for me.”
In and around his tennis activities, Buckley developed his talents as a guitar player. Starting around age 13, he was primarily selftaught on the instrument, although he took a few lessons for about 1-½ years.
“I was always kind of playing,” he recalled.
Buckley, who studied music theory in high school, went on to attend the Berklee College of Music, a private music college in Boston, Mass. Berklee is acclaimed as the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world, known for the study of jazz and modern American music. It also offers college-level courses in a wide range of contemporary and historic styles, including rock, hip hop, reggae, salsa, heavy metal and bluegrass.
Berklee alumni have won 310 Grammy Awards, more than any other college, and 108 Latin Grammy Awards. Other notable accolades for its alumni include 34 Emmy Awards, seven Tony Awards, eight Academy Awards and three Saturn Awards.
Buckley put tennis on the back burner until his senior year when he participated with the men’s tennis program at Emerson College, a private school with its main campus in Boston. Through an arrangement between the colleges, Berklee students were permitted to compete in NCAA Division III sports exclusively at Emerson.
“My senior year at Berklee, I met with (coach Mason Astley, who currently serves as the women’s head coach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the team and I really connected,” Buckley noted. “He reminded me a lot of Owen J. Roberts head coach Jerry Styer ... very calm, cool, collected and he knew how to get the job done and focus.”
It took Brant some time to get into competitive playing shape, saying there was “some rust” because he didn’t really play competitively for three years. He played number one singles and doubles and played a few matches at number two singles.
“I believe I lost my first four matches in singles and never lost another match after that.
“By the end of the season, I had a lot of match confidence,” he added. “I really enjoyed playing my senior year for Emerson College. I am just happy to have had a cool tennis experience in my final year.”
Following his 2009 graduation from Berklee — he studied songwriting as a major — Brant moved to Philadelphia, where he taught both tennis and music up to 2013. He then moved to Chicago, where he was employed as a fulltime tennis instructor at the Mid-Town Athletic Club in 2014.
One day, while giving an on-court lesson, Buckley recalled hitting a forehand shot and collapsing.
“It didn’t feel good,” he said.
Approximately 8-10 doctors who examined Brant were unable to diagnose the problem. More doctors then checked him out for neurological issues. A foot doctor who previously treated eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi identified the problem as neuropathy, a disorder of the peripheral nervous system in which there is a temporary loss of motor and sensory function due to blockage of nerve conduction.
“The injury just happened,” he said, noting it affected the ball at the end of his foot. “So many hitting lessons on my feet, moving around.
“The doctor’s diagnosis was, it was like a hammer hitting the nerve,” Buckley added. “It was due to overuse.”
Today, Buckley is able to play tennis for about an hour at a time, in contrast to the amount of oncourt time he logged as an instructor. He pronounced himself about 95 percent healed.
“I’m happy to hit,” he said. “Being able to move again ... it helps a lot when I’m stuck.”
While getting to that point, Buckley used the experience to build on his musical endeavors.
His song “Nerve Damage Blues.”, detailing his medical issue and its impact on his life, is one of nine songs on the “Strange Times” album he produced after his first album, “My Life,” was released in 2012. At 3:29 in length, its lyrics detail the injury he sustained:
“Was a tennis pro, then my right foot snapped,
“Fell to the ground, career sapped.
“Oh, so much pain.” And the first playing of the chorus:
“I could use some new walking shoes,
“cause I got Nerve Damage Blues.”
Other lyrics speak to the difficulties in diagnosing his injury (“Ten doctors and a hired gun. Everyone said I was done.”) and the problems with his workmen’s compensation claim (“Dollar man said back to work ... All the lawyers were so blind to my pain.”) and the more satisfying conclusion (“Now I’m back in my shoes, I’ve healed my Nerve Damage Blues.”)
The song was a product of hundreds of hours’ creation, and Buckley noted it served as a form of therapy for his life.
“Over a three-year period of pain, muscle weakness and dejection, I lost my money, my job, and was forced to sell my car,” he related in a blog on The Tennis Foodie site. “I was miserable.
“From this dark time, I wrote the song, “Nerve Damage Blues.” The lyrics in the song talk about the whole experience.”
Buckley described his song-producing process as writing the lyrics first, then putting them to different beats.
Brant met bluesman Jesse Graves, Philadelphia’s premier bluesman during the 1970s and a player with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Hound Dog Taylor, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Tom Waits. Graves learned from Reverend Gary Davis and passed on the blues and Native American Spirituality to Brant.
Paradoxically, Brant’s situation served both to hamper, then inspire, his musical endeavors.
“I had the blues so bad, I couldn’t even play the blues; and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone or anything,” he said. “Looking back now, the injury was an extreme blessing and it happened for a reason. Going through it taught me what the blues are all about.
“I must thank the injury for my new musical sound. Real blues are no joke, and it’s like Son House (rural blues figure) said: “The blues ain’t nothing but a low down shaking chill. If you ain’t had ‘em, I hope you never will.”
As part of his recovery from neurapraxia, Buckley took up Kriya Yoga meditation. It’s comprised of spinal breathing exercises he described as “open(ing) up to the energy around you ... recharging your battery.”
“The breath goes down back, up into head,” he explained. “It relieves pain. I do it constantly ... the breath calms the body, and awareness intensifies”
It’s also helped him build vocal melodies.
“Music is a form of meditation, healing the self,” he said. “It’s a release emotion, helps function. Heal others through process.”
For the future, Brant would like to move out west. He also mentioned the possibility of going back to school to learn computer science.
“I’m trying to figure out where I’m going and what I’m doing,” he said.
Through it all, Buckley’s used music as “a healing form ... using it to heal others.”
For his part, Styer revels in the regular contact he has with Brant in the years since they interfaced on the tennis courts at Bucktown.
“I’m glad to talk with him every day,” Styer noted. “He’s always doing something interesting.”